Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Reggae on the Rocks – a Review

This was the twenty-fifth annual Reggae on the Rocks, a venerable institution created in 1987. It has been showcasing the best of the legendary and upcoming artists available. Those who have attended ROR for the past 25 years were fortunate enough to see artists that are no longer with us such as Lucky Dube or Joseph Hill of Culture.

The acts were introduced by Donovan Makha, the host of Reggae Bloodlines on KGNU. (Reggae Bloodlines is the longest running Reggae Program on the air in the United States: hosted by Donovan Makha for 34 years.) This year’s ROR lineup included: Yellow Dubmarine, Judge Roughneck, The Meditations, Rebelution, Steel Pulse, and last — but not least — Burning Spear. Burning Spear has not performed at Reggae on the Rocks since 2007 and is performing at only a handful of shows in 2012, so it was to be a special evening.

I have been to reggae shows under the stars at wonderful Red Rocks Amphitheater, but it is more common for my son Mark to be attendance at these August showcases. This year I planned to go, and invited a covey of friends including my son, my long time Denver friend William, and an old high school buddy and reggae aficionado, Ron. I purchased five general admission tickets back in May, and made plans for the concert. GA is the only way, and it does require some planning, especially for a show starting at 2:00 PM and going well after midnight.

In the past, all Red Rocks shows were general admission, and I’m no stranger to spending the day on the rocks starting before noon to see a show at dusk. But now RR is getting civilized with reserved seats — if you call sitting on boards attached to concrete and rocks civilized. Now don’t get me wrong, the super sized aisles at RR are perfect for dancing and people can come and go without jamming your knees like those theater venues, but — as I’ve grown older — I’ve gotten to appreciate Fiddler’s Green much more — softer seats, larger bathrooms … you know … I mean … RR seats almost 10,000, and the main bathroom by the stage has four urinals and three stalls. I ask you? — but I digress.

We started out early with Mark and his friend Dorian and my nephew Joel and headed for Denver. We picked up William and drove out to Red Rocks. My friend Ron couldn’t make it this year, but we can wait for next year and do this again. We got to RR early and parked in the upper lot. It was time for some tail gating and enjoying the sun, car stereo music, and happy campers ready for a great day of reggae. We packed up our necessities: food, water, blankets, binoculars, etc. — no alcohol please — eight dollar beers await inside, and headed up the stairs only to head back down the 196 steps to the base of the red rock seating. Nestled between two large barges of prehistoric sandstone, one name “Ship Rock” and the other “Creation,” we found our home in about the twelfth row. Guess we weren’t the first there. But there are over 100 rows at RR, so we were close, right behind the mixer board. (Actually the lights and video control board, the sound man is on stage right.)

Reggae is most easily recognized by the rhythmic accents on the off-beat, usually played by guitar or piano (or both), known as the skank. This pattern accents the second and fourth beat in each bar (or the "and"s of each beat depending on how the music is counted) and combines with the drums emphasis on beat three to create a unique feel and sense of phrasing in contrast to most other popular genres focus on beat one, the "downbeat". The tempo of reggae is usually felt as slower than the popular Jamaican forms, ska and rocksteady, which preceded it. It is this slower tempo, the guitar/piano off beats, the emphasis on the third beat, and the use of syncopated, melodic bass lines that differentiates reggae from other music, although other musical styles have incorporated some of these innovations separately.

One thing that is special about reggae music is the heavy involvement of the audience. Of course, other modern music genres include wild audience responses, but reggae is the ultimate mellow music with the crowd participating with rhythmic swaying and a feeling that you just have to move your hands and feet to the gentle beat. That and a generous cloud of ganja smoke filling the air. Now that sweet smelling cloud is not foreign to any Red Rocks concert, but the Jamaican vibes definitely brought out the best of home grown and imported alike. Reggae also has a spiritual side with the Rastafarian religion, dreadlocks hair, ganja smoke, and Jah. But most of the audience was there for the music … that in itself a spiritual experience.

We settled in for a little crowd watching and soon the first act was on stage. A couple or three rows in front of us were a dozen people, obviously Hispanic. In that group was this skinny old guy wearing leather pants and a bandana so low on his forehead that you could hardly see his eyes. He was dancing and swaying to the music even before the first beat, and he soon had his shirt off. He was beyond tan, looked like he lived in the sun. They were all having a great time … we all were … but this old guy was really showing how. More than once, someone would come up and have a picture taken with him. He was that much of a specialty. Dressing for a concert … it's an art. We were surrounded by people in shorts and tie-dye, and all ages were well represented. Of course, only the truely physically fit can conquer the steps at Red Rocks, but even this old geezer made it down the steps just fine.

It was warm, about 80, but a cool breeze kept us all comfortable, and there was plenty of water, lemonade, and stuff stronger if you are so inclined. A great crowd: mellow to the nth and ready for a day (and night) of grooving.

It began with “Yellow Dubmarine,” a band that does all (or mostly all) Beatles tunes to a reggae beat: a reggae tribute band. It is a compliment on the quality of Beatles melodies how well they convert to the steady four-four reggae swing time beat with the rapid guitar/keyboard strokes. Of course, any reggae band had a horn section, a heavy duty bass player planted next to the percussionist to double up on rhythm, and a few bongos, congas, and other Caribbean sound makers. This young band from Washington, DC, got the show started with a reggae flavored British invasion sound that brought the sun baked crowd to their feet.

YD was great fun. They actually did one Pink Floyd song, but there final set was all off Revolver, Rubber Soul, and Sgt. Pepper’s for a rousing start to the festivities.

Next came Judge Roughneck. This band hails from Denver, Colorado, and combines ska and reggae music for a truly grooving sound. A very interesting bunch, their unique brand of pop-reggae pays tribute to both the early '80's British 2-Tone movement and the original jazz-laced ska of Jamaica, while infusing a generous dose of soul and R and B. The result is a unique, high-energy dance sound that entertains a wide audience. They had the early crowd on their feet and hopping, but these were just the opening acts, and more was to come.

The Meditations — Ansel Cridland, Danny Clarke and Winston Watson, were next. This well known trio really fit the genre of reggae … not a bunch of white boys, but true African dreadlocks. It seems to me that they had a new backing band, and they weren’t as tight musically as all the other acts, but the vocals made up for that deficiency. These singers recorded backup vocals with the legendary Bob Marley, so their reggae chops are validated at the highest level.

Now, as evening dawned?, the big acts came on stage. First was Rebelution, a young (for reggae) California band. Eric Rachmanny, the lead singer and guitar player, looked middle eastern, although his marijuana emblazened shirt said “Kiss me, I’m Irish.” His singing style was a cross between hip hop and reggae and his distinctive voice got some electronic alteration to sound like all the other rappers I’ve ever heard. Although their sound is distinctly reggae, there is a hybrid nature merging world music with rock and funk. The solid sax playing of their touring member and New Orleans native, Kris Royal, added a Caribbean authenticity to this otherwise white band from San Fran.

As night definitely settled and the crowd began to relax and really get down to the music, the main acts appeared. First was the awesome Steel Pulse. This British band with true African and Jamaican roots has been on the reggae music scene since the early 70’s. With well over a dozen albums and a deep Rastafarian belief, this band has spoken loudly against the evils of racism since their first release, "Ku Klux Klan" on a 45 and their "Black and Proud" celebrates Pan-Africanism. Their music is roots reggae, which means the “real thing.”

Plenty of gray hair in that band. It was during this set that someone asked my son if he had any papers. He said no. The guy then asked if "the old guy on the end did?" Mark said no. I would have said, "but I do have a card that gets me into national parks for free." You gotta love the crowd at Red Rocks. The girl in front of us left her partner swinging his arms and legs to join a group a couple of rows down. She soon returned with a nice pipe and a bowl full. I guess her boyfriend didn't have any of his own. Yup, that's an RR crowd alright. Did I mention her boyfriend had a bandana tied on his head? Kids these days, if their not hanging out on your lawn, they're bummin' weed!

Now the crowd was really rockin’, or were they groovin’? They were swayin'. Certainly they were SMOKIN’! Not sure how to describe a bunch of white Coloradans up and dancing to the reggae beat. By this time everyone was on their feet, swinging arms and moving legs, lifting hands up to the star filled Colorado sky as the Steel Pulse filled the amphitheater with percussion led, horn fed, soul music.

After a short encore, the stage was set for the final act, Burning Spear. Winston Rodney, the 67 year old Jamaican roots reggae singer and band leader with a brilliant ensemble of musicians. Burning Spear is known for his Rastafari movement messages. Rodney was born in Saint Ann's Bay, Jamaica, as were singer Bob Marley and political activist Marcus Garvey who both had a great influence on Rodney's life: Garvey in his philosophy, which Burning Spear greatly took to, and Marley in directly helping Burning Spear get started in the music industry.

There was no question that this was a band designed to celebrate the reggae greatness of Rodney — Burning Spear. For nearly four decades this musician has brought reggae to the people. The band was top notch and tight as the conga drums Rodney showcased. However, much of the show consisted of looping reggae riffs while Rodney showed that his nearly 70-year-old bones could still dance up a storm on stage. 

Although the music was great and the crowd was ecstatic in their approval, it was more a celebration of the Grammy award winning Rodney and his fame than a set of songs. Now don’t get me wrong, it was great music, but not quite like the tight sets of Steel Pulse.

I fell in love with the drummer. Don’t know his name, but he was key to the powerful and synchronized beat. Two guitars added the required skank as the requisite three horn section added top. This was by far the tightest band of the night … and that is not faint praise as all the groups were large and talented. However, I could not get over the feeling that this was more a love session for Rodney than an actual set of songs. The band would maintain a steady background as Rodney would dance or sway or play his drums so it seemed that all the songs were pretty much the same and the primary purpose was to celebrate Rodney … not that I minded … he may be the reigning king of reggae and more the heir of Bob Marley than Bob's own son Ziggy. Besides, who cares, as long as your grooving to the off-beat.

The lead guitar player, a young and very, very talented musician would often play the role of cheer leader for Rodney, encouraging the crowd to stand and cheer the aging reggae star. On the other hand, the gray hair was much more obvious in the entire Steel Pulse band. Yes, Burning Spear is Rodney more than the band. In fact, he often referred to himself as “Burning Spear.”

Rodney kept asking the crowd if they wanted more, and the answer would rock the rocks. They did finally leave the stage, but with the help of a spokesman who grabbed the mike, they were coxed back into the lights by a raucous crowd, although thinned out a bit since it was past midnight, still rocked the twin rocks and brought them back on stage for three more numbers. Finally, the music died. It had been a long day and a long night. But it was a sweet time.

As the sated crowd slowly drifted toward the parking lot, and the ganja cloud finally dissipated over Red Rocks, our little band … after scaling the near 200 steps back to the top … headed for some refreshments. It had been nearly ten hours of solid music only nourished by a few granola bars (plus sunflower seeds, buffalo jerky, M&M's, and popcorn … oh and some beers — wait, I almost forgot, the vendors had Red Stripe in with the Coors, Pabst, and Bud!!!). We then headed for the Colorado Café at the intersection of Speer Boulevard and Colfax to enjoy some early morning coffee and eggs with the usual Denver Saturday night street crowd. (I'll have a cheese omelet and make that whole wheat toast.) An after-midnight crowd at a friendly diner capping the end to a beautiful and musical day.

It was well past three AM when I finally finished delivering all the group to their respective homes and then had a nice post-concert chat on FB with Rebecca on the fine points of reggae. She hosted a weekly two hour Reggae radio show on a Haines, Alaska, public radio station for almost 10 years.

It was nearly four before I finally got my jumbled brain to go to sleep. It was good to sleep in late on Sunday, and let the sounds of reggae echo in the canyons of my mind.

No comments:

Post a Comment